Daring To Think

Wed, October 09, 2019

Enabling students to think is one of the most fundamental - and yet most challenging - aspect of any classroom. So much of our modern curriculum is geared towards knowledge and recall of facts, while in a technology-driven society, memory retention skills are rapidly becoming obsolete.  Why spend hours rote-learning facts when Google can do it several times faster (and more reliably) than even the sharpest human brain?

The ancient Athenian art of philosophy has been integral to creating a shift in pedagogy in many disciplines at St Mark’s Anglican Community School, and the students are reaping the benefits. This pedagogical approach focusses on the General Capabilities of critical and creative thinking and intercultural understanding, skills that are in so much demand in a modern workplace.

Integral to the practice is the ‘Philosophy in Schools’ approach, which uses the ‘Community of Inquiry’ methodology. Students are presented with a short stimulus related to a topic, such as a news article, a thought experiment or a short story. The students collaborate to choose an inquiry question that enables in-depth analysis of the stimulus.

The central phase is a Socratic circle discussion, in which students are empowered to engage in respectful and critical dialogue. The teacher’s role is that of facilitator, rather than an information giver, prompting student engagement and ensuring that all students have an opportunity to participate. With practice, the students are able to manage their own discussions, with a high degree of emotional intelligence, enabling a deeply critical inquiry to take place.

In classes using this approach, students’ engagement has soared. Previously disengaged students suddenly find that their opinions matter, and are challenged to develop their arguments to support (or sometimes, change) their position on a topic.

Philosophy and Ethics was introduced as an ATAR course in 2013 and more recently, as a Year 10 elective course. Student interest in philosophy has grown consistently, and in 2019, St Mark’s introduced a General Philosophy & Ethics course, allowing more students to engage with the subject.

This process is not only used in the stand-alone philosophy classes, a number of teachers from different areas of the curriculum have also trained in the practice and implementation of philosophy. As a result, the Philosophical Community of Inquiry model is now used in a variety of learning areas. For example, an English class discussed key themes of literary text, such as ‘Lord of the Flies’, while another class held a geographical inquiry on sustainability.  A Year 8 History class investigated the Crusades and an Economics class examined sweat shops.

This is complemented with extra-curricular Philosophy-based activities at St Mark’s, including a weekly Philosophy Café and entering teams into the Perth Philosothon and Ethics Olympiad interschool events. For the last two years, St Mark’s has proudly represented Western Australia in the FAPSA Australasian Philosothon.

Building on these successes, St Mark’s established a Philosopher in Residence program, where a visiting philosopher joins the School community for a week, working with students and with staff. In 2018, we were privileged to host Mr Peter Worley from the Philosophy Foundation in the UK, and this year, we hosted Dr Tim Dean, a Sydney-based freelance philosopher and award-winning writer and teacher.

The ultimate aim of this approach is to equip and enable students to strive for the motto born from the Age of Enlightenment - sapere aude! Loosely translated, and attributed to both Rousseau and Kant, it invites people to ‘Dare to think for yourself’ or ‘Dare to know’.

At St Mark’s, we are working towards preparing our students for when they leave the School: not leaving knowing the ‘right’ answer, but leaving as critical, creative and collaborative thinkers.

Andrew Rogers, Philosophy & Ethics Teacher